It seems like only yesterday. In 1994 Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and retook the U.S. Senate after nearly a decade of Democratic control. Republicans were also riding high in governorships and state legislatures. Now, Democrats have an absolute lock on Washington for the foreseeable future, and the takeover in the states has been less publicized but just as dramatic. The GOP controls both state houses in just 14 states while the Democrats control both in 27. Governors are now tied at 25 apiece when just four years ago Republicans had a huge 32–18 margin.
The Republican brand has virtually failed at the federal level and is falling like a rock at the state tier. How did this seismic shift come about? There were lots of contributing factors, one of which is that the party leadership has failed to show independent voters or their own base that they stand for something. But the most important factor was that Republicans have been completely out-organized by Democrats. And in what is surely the greatest irony of modern political history, they did it by stealing a chapter from the Republican policy playbook, the one called "privatization."
Conservatives may advocate privatization for government, but Democrats put it into action in politics. All the key party functions have simply been outsourced. The big donors entrepreneurially moved their funding of key political functions outside the traditional party structure, building and paying for separate, private organizations that, taken together, do everything our old-fashioned political parties used to do—without having to get buy-in from political-party officials.
Colorado is a great case study. In just 10 years the state has switched from red to blue, with much of this shift happening since 2004. The Colorado State Senate is 60 percent Democrats, and the State House of Representatives is nearly 60 percent Democratic as well. The governor is a Democrat as are three other statewide constitutional officers. More than 70 percent of the representatives to the U.S. House are Democrats, and both U.S. senators are Democrats. No doubt some Colorado voters changed their views on politics over the past decade. But the real reason for the radical change is a brilliant political privatization plan by Colorado's "Gang of Four."
The group—Tim Gill, Rutt Bridges, Jared Polis and Pat Stryker—are wealthy Coloradans who support liberal politics. Fed up with that sense of unreturned affection that is common among donors who really care about policy, the Gang gave up on hoping for the best from their Democratic Party allies and instead funded every important political-party function outside the party, with private dollars.
Under the umbrella of the Colorado Democracy Alliance, the group built and funded an array of new, private organizations to handle the normal tasks of a political party. The Colorado branch of Progressive Majority recruits and trains candidates, Colorado Ethics Watch investigates, files complaints and even sues, Colorado Media Matters fights "conservative disinformation," the Colorado Center on Law and Policy handles constitutional litigation, the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, Bell Policy Center and Big Horn Center provide messaging, research and policy agendas, Democracy for Colorado, New Era Colorado, Progress Now Colorado and other advocacy groups recruit, identify and activate the grassroots for pressure campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts. How expensive is this effort? Donations are private so no one knows for sure, but this is easily a multimillion dollar project.
Just last year liberal fundraiser Rob Stein told participants at a panel discussion at the Democratic nominating convention in Denver that his national Democracy Alliance is doing everything it can to spread this "Colorado model" around the country. He confirmed that the Colorado-style of privatized political infrastructure is moving ahead in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, with 14 other states in development.
When pundits analyze the current clout of liberals, they tend to focus on magnetic personalities like Barack Obama, Democratic effectiveness on the Internet, or Republican missteps like social conservatives alienating moderates or the immigration issue alienating Latino voters. All these may be true, but are only marginal reasons. The real tide has been turned on the ground through the actions of a relative handful of very large-dollar donors. Through vehicles like the national Democracy Alliance and its state affiliates, working with the innovative Colorado model of privatizing traditional political-party functions, they've created an effective strategy to dramatically alter political and policy outcomes now and for years to come.
The road back for Republicans is a simple two step process: (1) stand for something, and (2) start retooling the ground game. If we are the party of entrepreneurs, privatization and innovation, then we'd better start acting like it. Otherwise it's going to be a long political winter.